Seeking citizenship at Ellis Island, New York. (Credit: _TuVeuxMaPhoto_/NY Ellis Island Immigration Museum/Flickr)
Seeking citizenship at Ellis Island, New York. (Credit: _TuVeuxMaPhoto_/NY Ellis Island Immigration Museum/Flickr)

We all carry multiple identities which define who we are. We are human beings, female human beings, female human beings with passion. Such an extension indeed reflects the path of human development, from the individual level to the social level, to the level of the global citizen.

It is commonly recognised that humanity can be fully developed only through social encounters with other people, societies, and the world. As a citizen, this means developing relationships in multiple dimensions: our relationships with society, nature, the world, and ourselves.

The foundation for such development is that truly humanitarian values are generated from the innate ethical origins of each of us, so when we discuss women’s influence, I refer primarily to two things: firstly, women’s capacity to extend moral relationships to promote the public good; and secondly, the unique role of women in achieving balance in the world.

Historic female role models

Reflecting on history, we know that gaining recognition has taken women a long time. Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, and Hannah Arendt are all role models who were dedicated to helping women achieve basic rights.

The era that Wollstonecraft lived in was filled with gender bias, which led her to write A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she stated, “I plead for my sex – not for myself.” The book is a product of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and also the Protestant Reformation.[1] For Wollstonecraft, the Enlightenment did not enlighten women but failed them. She saw the oppression of women as irrational, a contradiction of Enlightenment principles like democracy, equality, and freedom. Wollstonecraft believed women embodied a humanity and a state of reason equal to men; to hold women down was irrational and impeded social progress. Education was the key to establishing women as valued citizens and participants in all areas of society.

Wollstonecraft believed that the most salutary improvements to humanity would come from a female revolution, otherwise, women would continue to be harmed and civilisation itself would suffer as a result. She advocated independence and emphasised that reason should be the simple mechanism of improvement and means of discerning truth. Wollstonecraft did not argue that reason and feeling should act independently. She believed they should inform each other. She also argued for social justice and the cultivation of democracy, with women an essential component of the electorate.

Writing in the 18th Century, Wollstonecraft argued it was time to restore dignity to women by encouraging them to reform themselves in order to reform the world.

None of these great ideas have been fully realised and that is why we need to take up the baton, although we face different challenges to Wollstonecraft’s time.

Changing notions of citizenship

Before we understand the influence of women as citizens, we need to first understand what is meant by citizenship. Western and Eastern traditions both have theories on how to transform the individual into a citizen. Controversy is found in the space between the cultivation of the individual and the cultivation of the social man.[2]

The Axial Age

In Karl Jaspers’s influential analysis of the Axial Age, he depicts the development of philosophical and ethical traditions among major civilisations:

Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, skepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.[3]

For Jaspers, this axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything humanity has become since then. It was the most fruitful point in history in the fashioning of humanity; humanity became conscious of being as a whole, of the self, and of its limitations. The individual discovered origins within from which to rise above the self and the world.[4]

This was a time when all cultures freely expressed their perspectives and reflected on the many great works and ideas they produced and disseminated.

Chinese culture has two integrative structures to illustrate ethical relationships: the oneness of heaven and man, and the monism of morality. The moral approach emphasises that morality is generated from human nature and can be extended to family ethics, society, and country; from particularity to universality. In contrast to the moral approach, which centres upon moral subjectivity, the unity of heaven and man approach places greater emphasis on cosmic objectivity on one hand, and metaphysical reality on the other.

Likewise, in the West, the metaphor of the concentric circles facilitates differing interpretations of human development. The origin of this metaphor can be traced back to around 300 BCE, in the arguments of the philosopher Theophrastus.[5] One way to interpret the metaphor is to see the individual as the centre, the starting point which expands to other relationships. “In general, each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles, some smaller, others larger, some enclosing and others enclosed, depending on their differing and unequal relations.”[6] Following this idea, Joseph Mazzini places humanity as the centre:

Your first duties, first…because without understanding these you can only imperfectly fulfil the rest… You have duties as citizens, as sons, as fathers…but what makes these duties sacred and inviolable is the mission, the duty, which your nature as men imposes on you.[7]

Henry Shue interprets the relationship in a more vivid way:

An almost irresistibly natural-seeming image dominates much thinking about duties. We often see our duties from the point of view of a pebble dropped into a pond: I am at the centre of a system of concentric circles that become fainter as they spread…my duties are exactly like the concentric ripples around the pebble; strongest at the centre and rapidly diminishing toward the periphery… my duties to those on the periphery are going to diminish to nothing.[8]

In contrast, another application of the metaphor sees the citizen of the world as the central concern. “Consider who you are. To begin with, a man, you are a citizen of the world.”[9] Early in the 18th Century, Montesquieu made this point more straightforwardly:

If I know of anything advantageous to my family but not to my country, I should try to forget it. If I know of anything advantageous to my country which was prejudicial to Europe and to the human race, I should look upon it as a crime.[10]

Various meanings of citizenship can indicate something sublime. Classical social theorists provide us with different ways of looking at the issue. Emile Durkheim, the father of functionalism, views human beings collectively as an organic component that maintains the consensus and equilibrium of society.[11] In contrast, a phenomenologist would see humans as autonomous, creating their own world. As a synthesis, Marxism has developed conflict theory, which sees human beings as both producers and products of history.

Max Weber uses a theory of power to further illustrate the relationship between the individual and society. Kant makes a ‘compromise’ by pointing out that there exists a faculty in human nature – shared by everyone – that is the foundation of ethical principles. This balances human nature and natural law. Many other thinkers have attempted to establish a similar balance; for example, Aristotle’s golden mean, Aquinas’ natural law, Hobbes and Rousseau’s social contract, Locke’s natural rights, and Hegel’s dialectical unity.

Carlos Torres analyses changing notions of citizenship. He has traced a path from the Enlightenment as the foundation of citizenship (a Kantian proposal, a Hegelian proposition, and a Marxist perspective) to T. H. Marshall’s three elements of citizenship: civil, political, and social rights. Torres has changing perspectives from the welfare state liberal to the neoconservative; from feminism, post-colonialism, and critical race theory, to new social movements. Torres stresses that “citizenship should be understood as civic virtues beyond identity.”[12] The essence of his democratic multicultural citizenship theory is a composition of the virtues of tolerance, curiosity, hope, love, and the ability to dialogue.

A secular age: The active citizen vs the buffered self

From 1500 CE to the post-2000 CE period, the task of taking care of humanity has been transferred from that of a personal God to that of an impersonal modern moral code. The crisis of humanity has become even worse in this secular age.[13] We can see that Western history has shifted its centre from theology, to metaphysics, to humanitarian morals, and finally to the economy and technology. As Carl Schmitt put it, “the Enlightened eighteenth century believed in a clear and simple upward line of human progress, which should above all result in the intellectual and moral perfection of humanity; however, ironically, to the extent that anyone is still interested in humanitarian-moral progress, it appears as a by-product of economic progress.”

In a secularised world, the disciplined and reformed rational self has replaced the vulnerable and porous self. It is assumed that a well-organised society will be built upon human rationality and a modern moral code. In other words, the social order can be organised by rational codes, and human relationships which matter are prescribed in these codes.

Marin Buber captures the essence of this problem in his sharp analysis of how the I and Thou relationship has become the I and It relationship in the so-called progressive society. As a result, the world has lost its focus on bringing everyone to a higher realm of spirituality. More than ever, we see the world disoriented. The physical world has been developed rapidly, almost to ‘completion’, but a humanised world is yet to be seen.

An additional result, as Vern Bullough says, is “The critique of the Enlightenment seems to imply not simply a retreat from reason, but a collapse into subjectivism and a loss of confidence that we control the future—a new form of nihilism.”[14] The humanitarian, of whatever variety, affirms the complexity of man as an integrated whole; but the post-modernism of recent decades has further heightened a sense of human fragmentation.

Joe Kincheloe calls this second degree of alienation a state that is unconscious of the existence of alienation.[15] As a result, active citizens simply become passive consumers. All these problems become even more enhanced with the extension of globalisation. What we need now is a fully-fledged humanitarian view of the individual and society.

In addition to the Enlightenment values of freedom, rationality, the rule of law, and individual dignity, we need to develop truly humanitarian values which are generated from our innate ethical origins and which support the holistic interconnectedness of all cultures and societies. They are internal, non-instrumental, and eternal. In searching for these truly humanitarian values, we will discover where rich intercivilisational spiritual resources should meet, converge, and engage in dialogue.

Global citizenship means all under heaven

Living in a globalised age, our identity has been extended accordingly. Whereas a dialectical tension between the individual and the social being tends to be a more expanded dimension of the tensions of this era, the tension and integration between the ‘state citizen’ and the ‘cosmopolitan citizen’ is more oriented towards culture.

Now, the meaning of citizenship has expanded to encompass ‘Western’, ‘Eastern’, and ‘cross-cultural’ contexts. The concept of society has been enlarged, for example, from the polis, community, and state, to our present global village. If we could see that ‘citizenship’ embodies the tensions and unification between individuals and states, we would admit that the ideal of global citizenship, in fact, reflects the expansion of tensions among and the unification of individuals, states, and the world. The meanings of cosmopolitanism have changed from abstracted (Plato), integrative (Confucius), and metaphysical orientations to more institutional, moral, universal, global, cultural, and individual emphases.

The current debate about whether a commitment to global citizenship should be allowed to vie with one’s loyalty to the nation-state – since the essence of citizenship is the individual’s relation to a state – may hinge on the need for some effective form of supra-national political authority and for political action beyond the nation-state. For Derek Heater, the ideal of global citizenship has a legitimate basis:

If we can interpret the increasingly interdependent condition of the planet as a global community or world society, surely, the term ‘world citizen’ is a legitimate one. Thus, the concept is significant not only for our understanding of the changing nature of the state as a political-ethical unit and of the individual as a political-ethical animal, but also for our understanding of the nature of the world. If the modern state has needed citizens for its legitimacy and stability, so too does the emerging global community.[16]

Richard Falk describes five images of global citizenship: the individual who advocates institutional reform; the global business elite, who take on a cosmopolitan identity; the person who adapts his or her lifestyle in accordance with the precepts of global economic and environmental sustainability; a regional version of transnational citizenship; and groups which have global agendas and global reach. Falk argues that the cosmopolitan position starts with the assertion that all human beings are morally equal.[17]

James Bank argues that the increasing ethnic, racial, cultural, and language diversity present in countries throughout the world is forcing educators and policymakers to rethink existing notions of citizenship from global perspectives.[18] Mark Mason argues that “students need a globally oriented, rather than a nationally oriented, citizenship education, which would encourage them to question the Westphalian principle of state sovereignty and would educate them in their rights, responsibilities and commitments as global citizens.”[19]

Globalisation seems to represent a transformation from the age of nation-states to a new age laden with transnational phenomena and a distinct lack of clarity. But one thing is clear: Globalisation is unavoidable. Its depth sinks within all countries, societies, and cultures to such an extent that nothing is left beyond its complex reach. This is why an ‘all under heaven’ ideal could become a key vision for the future. The Chinese philosophical concept of ‘all under heaven’ (天下) means necessarily the ‘exclusion of nothing and nobody’ or the ‘inclusion of all peoples and all lands’.[20]

Looking forward, we need to break through the currently closed world structure, which promotes the rational agent or buffered self while sacrificing the feelings and the bodily existence of others. In order to foster an open world structure, we should aspire to fully respect the flourishing of humanity, and move away from a single homogenised paradigm towards a celebration of the integrity of various ways of life.

The rebirth of the integrity of the world in ‘all-under-heaven’ terms needs a new worldview, and a new framework of cultural, political, economic, and religious analysis. This is needed in order to reinterpret global problems as shared problems. Were we to surpass all historical efforts in the exploration of new ontological meanings of inter-civilisational dialogue, we might hold the promise of new ways to transform humanity and achieve the ultimate conditions of ‘all under heaven’. The concept of ‘all under heaven’ can be further illustrated in the Yin-Yang theory of balanced relationships.

Yin-Yang balanced relationships

We all come from different cultural traditions which interpret women in different ways. In China’s oldest and the most important classic, the Book of Change, Yin and Yang symbols represent man and woman.

According to traditional Chinese cosmology, Yang stands for the primal power, which is light-giving, active, strong, and of the spirit. The hexagram is consistently strong in character, and since it is without weakness, its essence is power or energy. Its image is heaven. In relation to the human world, it denotes the creative action of the holy man or sage, of the ruler or leader of men, who through power awaken and develop their higher nature. The movement of heaven is full of power. Thus, the superior man makes himself strong and untiring.

Yin represents yielding, receptive power. Its image is the earth. Yin (female) power followed yang (male) power, which made sense in traditional society. Contemporary society has changed substantially. However, female citizens who aim to be responsible for social change should also understand ancient wisdom, not simply in order to follow male power, but to follow creative power, either male or female.

Yin-yang means balance. It is important for society to see that a female role in terms of ‘following power’, yielding, or even retreating, still has the same power as an active and creative power. Female citizens are equal to males by actively participating in social change, and they share social responsibility. Ancient Chinese yin-yang wisdom can be seen as secular in the sense that it could contribute to Western ideas of citizenship.

‘The receptive’ is the perfect complement of the creative – the complement, not the opposite – for the receptive does not combat the creative, but it completes it. In itself, of course, the receptive is just as important as the creative. The receptive must be activated and led by the creative; then it can be productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand side by side with the creative does it become evil. The result is opposition to and struggle against the creative, which is productive of evil in both.

The life-giving capacity of K’un is all-encompassing (坤)! All things owe their birth to it; it receives the influences of heaven. K’un, in its immensity, supports and contains all things. Its capacity matches the unlimited power of Ch’ien. It is through K’un that things fully develop. It is the capacity and sustaining power of the earth that is denoted by K’un.

It is in this way that we aim to become not only mothers or citizens but also whole human beings who contribute to the balance of the world in the way of Yin and Yang.

The following paragraph can probably illustrate the ideal human condition we are aiming to create:

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons being cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being rightly regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.  

 – DaXue


Jiahong Chen

Research Director, Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute


This paper was presented at the Women Influence Forum’s ‚Being a Citizen‘ panel.

Jiahong Chen (second from right) with other speakers at the Women's Influence Forum

Jiahong Chen (second from right) with other speakers at the Women’s Influence Forum


[1]  Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women (New York: W.W Norton, 1975). Preface. 1.

[2]  John Dewey, Problems of Man (Philosophical Library, 1946).

[3]  Jaspers, Origins and Goal of History, 2.

[4]  Ibid, 3

[5] Derek Heater, World Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Thinking and Its Opponents (New York: Continuum, 2002). Theophrastus’s main argument is “We describe as naturally akin to each other those who are born of the same father and mother, and we further regard as kin those descended from the same ancestors, and moreover those who are fellow-citizens, because they are partners in a single country and society…. Hence we regard all men as kin and related to each other” (quoted in Heater, 2002, p. 45).

[6] Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 267. Hierocles is the earliest philosopher to use this metaphor.

[7] Joseph Mazzini, The Duties of Man and other Essays (London: Dent, 1961), 41.

[8]  Henry Shue, Mediating Duties: Ethics 98 (4) (1988), 684-704.

[9]  Epictetus, The Discourses as Reported by Arian, trans. W. A. Oldfather, vol. 1 (London: Heinemann, 1961), 63.

[10]  Derek Heater, World Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Thinking and Its Opponents (New York: Continuum, 2002), 48.

[11]  Emile Durkheim, Education and Sociology (Chicago: Free University Press of Glencoe, 1956).

[12] Carlos Torres, Democracy, Education, and Multiculturalism: Dilemmas of Citizenship in a Global World (Boston: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher Inc., 1998), 255.

[13] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).

[14]  Vern L. Bullough, Introduction in Toward a New Enlightenment (London: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 3.

[15]   Joe Kincheloe, “Critical Pedagogy in the Twenty-first Century: Evolution for Survival,” in Critical Pedagogy: Where are we now? ed. Peter McLaren. & Joe L. Kincheloe (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007).

[16] Derek Heater, World Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Thinking and Its Opponents (New York: Continuum, 2002) , 6-7.

[17]  Richard Falk, The Making of Global Citizenship, (London: SAGE Publications, 1994), 131.

[18]  James Banks. & C. Banks, Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, ed. 4, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001), 110-132.

[19] Mark Mason, “From Multiculturalism, Shared Values, and an Ethical Response to Globalization,” in Changing Education, eds. P.D. Hershock, M. Mason, & J. Hawkins, (Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Center, 2007), 93-114.

[20] Zhao Tingyang (2009). A Political World Philosophy in terms of all-under-heaven (Tian-xia). Diogenes.